Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day: The Buddha's Three Mothers

Ashley Wells, Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, Wisdom Quarterly (AN 2.32)
Mother's Day in America in 12 comics from The New Yorker (
The birth of Siddhartha with Mother Maya
The historical Buddha had three mothers in that final rebirth when he made an end of all suffering.

Most people will have heard of Siddhartha's second mother, his birth-mother, Maha Maya Devi ("Great Queen Maya"). She was a queen, the wife of his father a [rich Afghan Chieftain] King Suddhodana, whose riches derived from the Silk Road that brought wealth, merchants, and spiritual travelers to the faraway capital of Kapilavastu, the Buddha's hometown.

Birth mother: Queen Maha Maya Devi
Maya's beauty was like a "dream," and in fact the name maya derives from the Sanskrit and Pali word for "illusion" (taken in Mahayana-Hinduism as māyā, two religions that so influenced one another as to be the same thing with different deities, one buddhas the other avatars]. An illusion, of course, is fleeting. She passed away seven days after giving birth to Prince Siddhartha. There are reasons given for this -- the most spiritual being that she only took a human birth as a volunteer to give birth to him. We enter life knowing on some level those individuals who play the role of parents, partners, relatives, friends, and enemies. But that is a truth bigger than most can digest.

Maya, Mariah (Mary), a queen in heaven
And she was reborn as a devaputra (born-among-devas) in Sakka King of the Devas' celestial realm, the World of the Thirty-Three in space. There her former son Siddhartha, after becoming the Buddha, thanked and repaid her for her help in this life by teaching her the liberating-Dharma. The other devas of that world also benefited, although Sakka their ruler was already a stream-enterer and therefore a devoted follower of the Buddha.

Our parents do so much for us that, according to the Buddha, the only way we can ever repay them is by teaching or leading them to the ennobling Dharma.
Repaying our Parents (sutra)
Wisdom Quarterly translation (AN 2.32)
Shravana Kumar carries his aged and poor blind parents on his shoulders (Ramayana) More
Come on, dad. You, too, mom. Get on up here!
"Truly I say, meditators, there are two people who are not easy to repay. Who? Mother and father. Even if one were to carry one's mother on one shoulder and one's father on the other for a century, and one were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, and rubbing their limbs, even as they defecated and urinated where they sat [the shoulders], one would not by that pay or repay one's parents. Moreover, if one were to establish mother and father in absolute sovereignty over this great Earth, which abounds in the seven treasures, one would not by that pay or repay one's parents. Why is that? Mother and father do much for their children. They care for them, they nourish them, they introduce them to this world.
"But anyone who rouses one's unbelieving mother and father, settles and establishes them in conviction (saddhā); rouses one's unvirtuous mother and father, settles and establishes them in virtue (sīla); rouses one's stingy mother and father, settles and establishes them in generosity (danā); rouses one's foolish mother and father, settles and establishes them in wisdom (paññā): To this extent one pays and repays one's mother and father."

Ven. Thanissaro (Geoffrey DeGraff) summarizes: This sutra (AN 2.32) shows that the only way to repay parents is to strengthen them in four qualities: confidence (faith), virtue (morality), unselfishness (generosity), and wisdom (discernment). To do so, of course, we have to develop these qualities in ourselves, as well as learning how to tactfully employ them in being an example to our parents. As it happens, these four qualities are also those of a kalyana-mitta or "noble friend" (AN 8.54), which means that in repaying our parents in this way we become the sort of person who would be a noble friend to others as well.

The Other Mothers
Foster mother: Maha Pajapati Gotami
Many will also have heard of the Buddha's foster or stepmother related by blood, Queen Mahā Pajāpatī Gotami (Sanskrit Gautami). As Mother Number 3, she was Queen Maya's sister and co-wife. 

Both were married to King Suddhodana. She stepped forward to care for the newborn Siddhhartha to the detriment of her own son, Nanda, the Buddha's brother (they shared a father, their mothers were sisters, and she nursed and adopted him at age 7 days, which would seem to make her a little more than a stepmother or Nanda a half-brother; she also had a daughter, the Buddha's rarely mentioned half-sister, Sundari Nanda) -- She was the mother of Nanda, but it is said that she gave her own son to nurses and herself nursed the Buddha.
Not his mother: Princess Bimba (Yasodhara)
She is much more famous in this world than Maya because Pajapati (Sanskrit Prajapati) went on to become the first Buddhist nun. The Buddha's brother and sister also ordained and became enlightened.

This was in addition to Siddhartha's wife, Rahulamata ("Rahula's mother"), Princess Bimba Devi, much more popularly known as Yasodhara.

Rahula, Bimba, Siddhartha
What we are never told as we hear the story of the Buddha's life repeated is the fact that he did not "abandon" his family. Far from becoming a deadbeat father, having a good old time in the wilderness as an extreme ascetic, he saved his family: He came back enlightened and led his mother, father, wife, son, brother, sister, foster mother, cousins, and extended family members to liberation, to enlightenment and nirvana. He even remembered his birth mother and visited her where she was reborn. Such was the reverence of the Buddha for his parents, and many monastics followed suit. For example, there is the famous case of one of the Buddha's chief male disciples, Maha Moggallana, visiting his mother in hell to help her.

Of course, the Buddha's former wife, now the Buddhist nun and famous disputant Ven. Bhaddakaccānā, is not the Buddha's mother. How could she be the Buddha's mother? She was their son Ven. Rahula's mother.

First Mother
Questionable quote (Lotusing/flickr)
No, the Buddha's "first mother" is a stranger story of rebirth. In brief, it runs as follows. One day the Buddha was walking down a road with his monastic disciples when he passed an elderly couple. The man called out to him, "Son! Your mother and I have been missing you! It has been a long time since you visited us!"

The monastics thought this was very strange. Stranger still, the Buddha approached them and spoke to them in a very kindly way with gratitude. The monastics were confused, Why is the teacher letting these strangers talk to him this way and addressing him as "son"?

The Buddha later explained that for many (500) lives this couple had been his parents. Over and over, the karma of the three being such, they were born together. She raised him over and again. And here she was in that last life running into him apparently out of the blue but not really by accident. The nuns and monks may have been surprised to hear it but, in fact, the Buddha taught something far more surprising:

So long is this samsara -- this "continued wandering on" through births and deaths -- that it is difficult to ever meet anyone with whom one has not already shared all relationships. Look around; those people have already been one's mother, father... How much gratitude do we owe them? While this seems preposterous, it seems so only because we do not know how long an aeon (kalpa) is, how many there have been, or how many times we have already been reborn, how many existences we have already lived, how much we have already suffered. We have little to no idea. For if we knew, we would not be so eager to continue to cycle and revolve in ignorance again and again.
Kwan Yin as Mother Goddess (D)
In that final existence, the Bodhisattva (the Buddha-to-be) had taken rebirth in a special way to accomplish his goal of becoming a world-teacher Supremely Enlightened Teaching Buddha, and Maya had volunteered to serve the world-system in the capacity of giving birth to such a great being.

But here in the world, already existing, was the Bodhisattva's long time mother, his mother many times over, and now she had again found him. Our mothers, even when they do not give birth to us this time, are all around (fathers too). Our nurturers are here, and still they nurture us -- sometimes they attack us perhaps due to our lack of gratitude or their lack of understanding -- and stranger still we, too, are former mothers and fathers of others. Such is the incomprehensible working out of karma, an imponderable (acinteyya) thing.
Happy Mother's Day to all the moms -- and we mean ALL of them including you -- from Wisdom Quarterly.

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